Throughout centuries burial habits have been changing significantly on our soil. The reason for that is probably the geographical location of our country, since we lie on a crossroads of different cultures and climate zones. On our soil there is also the only passage across the Alps over to the Dinaric mountain range that is relatively flat and was more manoeuvrable to cross than any other area elsewhere. Being on this kind of draft area also meant that caravans and caravans of different people and cultures passed our territory, always leaving something behind. A part of this is also seen in our burial history. The pile-dwellers on the marshes of Ljubljana believed in cremation and scattering the ashes into the water, their tradition was followed by the cremation and keeping ashes inside of the urns. Urns were buried together with a few important belongings of the deceased, together with food and drinks so the person would not be hungry or thirsty reaching the other world. When the Romans set foot on our soil they used a similar technique of cremation and urns, but after they adopted Christianity, burial traditions change – there is no more cremation, the body is buried whole and with some favourite belongings that represented the life of a person together with some goodies for the afterlife. What was important with the Romans, is that the city of the people never mixed up with the burial grounds – they were located away from the centres but usually en route to the cities. Along side major roads whole cities of the dead were established, the more money you had, more prominent the location of your gravestone would be. In burial traditions rivers were considered sacred spots as well – sometimes rituals, to commemorate a certain cult, took place on the embankments of rivers. When Romans left and Slavs came, at the beginning they started burying people on the other side of the river, but once Christianity was adopted again, they started searching for Holy lands, that were usually represented in a church territory. Still in villages of Slovenia you can find a cemetery attached to the church, but in most cities there was not enough place and they needed to come to a different solution. In Ljubljana first cemetery was located near the Cathedral dedicated to Saint Nicholas, when they lacked place it moved to another area close to the church of Saint Peter. It opened its doors between 9th and 10th centuries, also people from nearby were buried there. Slowly there was lack of space, so they moved the third time to the area of the church of Saint Christopher. Gravesite was opened in 1797, but once the railway line was brought into its vicinity, they started thinking of moving it to a new location. And this is how we come to year 1906. They were still burying people in caskets, but before the burial the deceased had to lie in his parish church for 2 – 3 days, so relatives could come and say goodbye. The reason why they were left in the church for three days is also practical – sometimes they needed to make sure that the person is truly dead. At places they even tied a bell to their toes – so if it started to ring, the dead were definitely “saved by the bell”. After the farewell, a long procession from the parish church to the new cemetery started. New cemetery lied in the far area of the city, so it took a while – but it also caused problems with traffic in the city. For years they were thinking of a solution – one of them would be having chapels of parish churches located directly on the cemetery where the deceased could lie before the burial, but since the city was financially weak and there were no funds, it was hard to get a proper, economically doable idea. And this is where our greatest architect came into the picture. He was a genius who studied in Vienna, travelled the world and worked both in Prague and Vienna, returned back to his birth city and established an architectural faculty. His biggest quirk was stinginess and that actually brought him a lot of work, since the city was lacking funds. He recycled a lot with the already used materials and found objects that nobody wanted to use. In 1940 he was chosen to remodel the cemetery. His idea for the cemetery’s name was the “Garden of Death”, but the city disagreed and they voted for Žale instead – also that name falls in correctly, “žalovati” in Slovenian means to mourn and with that Žale would be a place where you mourn. With all his architectural work he was inspired by Greece, so the entry gate is modelled on a Greek temple. There is no roof – that is a symbolic representation of a border between the living and the death. The statue of Jesus on the top protects the city, from the other side Mary with her cape protects the dead. There is a central building for administration, followed by a garden of 14 death chapels, that are representing parishes from the entire city and its patron Saints. In the middle you can find a prayer house where the family can intimately say goodbye, the oil lamps are symbolising the passage from the living world into the world of the death. The architect wanted to create a city in miniature. The city had an idea that some chapels would be bigger and some smaller, depending how wealthy and prominent a deceased person would be – but Plečnik neglected the idea, he believed that before God we are all equal and there are no more differences among us.
November 1st is a work-free day in Slovenia. It is the All Saints day when we remember all of the beloved people, that have passed away. Traditionally we would start preparing for it a few days earlier, with making flower bouquets, gathering candles and afterwards making a list how many graves we would go visit and light candles to remember the beloved person. Each family had to go to at least two or three various cemeteries and light up candles on about 10-15 grave sites. As a kid I remember it as a very sober kind of day, with leaves slowly falling to the ground and rain drizzling on us, while we walked from one grave to another. We always stayed for the ceremony – local brass band would play a few tunes, we would stand very seriously at the gravesite and pay our respect. As a kid it was exciting to know that my grandpa was a part of the band and I always loved how, after the commemoration concert, he would come to us, with his shiny trumpet and a very fancy uniform. I was super proud. Little did I know that also that will pass one day and I will be lighting candles on his grave.
My grandpa’s trumpet.
As a kid I also loved going to the cemeteries in the evening – with everybody lighting up candles, the magical lights and shades was something very soothing and special. Already in prehistoric cultures fire had a special significance – it symbolised the universal spirit and embodied the moral order of the world. The fire in the house protected the family, their home and their property. If it would die, that would bring the disappearance of the entire family. In pre-christian societies, family was represented in a circle of life – from newly borns, to living beings all the way to the deceased. What connected them, were traditions by the fireplace, which represented all the family’s secrets. All life’s rituals took place by the fireplace – among them also talking with the ghosts of the deceased relatives. They were the ones who protected the still living ones and made sure the family was well taken care off and had numerous offsprings. Even today we light candles in memory for a deceased person and with that we are showing the continuation of the long tradition and respect towards our past generations.In our country we rarely talk about the dead or death in general – it has been always a bit of a taboo theme. Our family ties are so strong that once a person passes it is super hard to let go.But when I started travelling I understood that death is seen differently everywhere you go, each country and each culture has a different approach to it. In Slovenia we believe in the fact that when one person goes, the other one will soon be welcomed to this world.
This year All Saints day will be different. We are in a lockdown again and too many cemeteries are out of our municipality where we are not allowed to go. We will need to remember the deceased ones at home, in the circle of the family and light a candle or two to remember. Maybe we will share some stories and memories that will warm our hearts and feel like the loved ones are with us again.Cemeteries are spread across the entire country, each community has its own. One of our most known ones lies in Ljubljana, our capital city. It is called the cemetery Žale, which opened its doors back in 1906. Its most recognised appearance was given to the cemetery in 1940, when our best and most known architect Jože Plečnik was commissioned to rearrange it. But let us start at the beginning.
Žale is also the first cemetery in Slovenia where people were cremated again. It happened in 1968. At that time it was a rare thing to do. Even the bodies couldn’t be cremated in Slovenia – they were cremating them in nearby Austria. In late 1979 the first crematorium opened up its doors. In 2020 over 95% of people are being cremated, casket burials happen rarely and if they do, mostly it happens in the villages and not the city. There are a few other curiosities on the cemetery as well – a very interesting and modern church for services, dating to 1987. You can still find an old column, that belonged to the tram line number two, that was bringing people from the centre all the way to the cemetery between years 1901 – 1958. You can find a burial ground of all of the bishops of Ljubljana’s cathedral. Numerous famous people are being buried here including some of our most known writers, poets, chefs, musicians, sport athletes, former mayors of the city and our famous architect, Jože Plečnik. He created a gravesite for himself – he wanted a grave full of greenery, including the grapevine that represents Christianty.. One of the most remarkable buildings of the graveyard is the memorial to the fallen soldiers of the World War 1. That work of art is done by Plečnik’s student, Edo Ravnikar. It reminds us a bit of our National University Library, since Edo was helping Plečnik with the construction. The last part of cemetery was arranged between 1950 – 1960. It has numerous sculptors of renowned Slovenian artists that all represent a circle of life – a passage between the living world and the world of the death. A walk on this cemetery is a remarkable architectural experience. The architect plays with the symbols that live a big mark on ourselves. It is a peaceful oasis, full of greenery and tombstones – each one of them has a history and personal stories that their families will cherish forever. It feels like each tombstone represents its own song and when in a way a song is ended, the melody will linger on…